Baseball Card Collecting
William C. Kashatus
September 26, 2011
This summer, I learned a sobering lesson when I engaged a group of Little Leaguers with a trivia question.
“Can anyone name me the most popular rookie card of all time?” I asked. It was a moderately difficult question, meant to pique the curiosity of young collectors.
“You’re probably thinking of the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card,” said one bespectacled 10-year-old.
“That’s right,” another youngster chimed in. “That card is worth $250,000 if it’s in mint condition!”
It was clear I was out of my league, so I kept quiet and listened to the conversation that unfolded. I learned that the 1952 Mantle rookie card was part of Topps’ first ever baseball card set; that a single pack of 1952 cards is currently worth at least $5,000; and that baseball card collecting has lost its innocence among today’s youngsters, who view it as a financial investment rather than a mere hobby.
Topps is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. I began collecting Topps’ cards in 1965, when I was 6. They cost a nickel a pack, which included 10 cards, a stick of Bazooka bubble gum, and sometimes something extra: a trivia question, team sticker, or coin with a player’s photo.
Topps had a monopoly in those days. Cards went on sale in the early spring, and buying them became a summerlong ritual. Since they were released in several series over the course of the baseball season, I was always trying to scrape together the coins to make sure I’d have all 407 cards by season’s end.
I anxiously flipped through each pack hoping to find a Phillie. In fact, Richie Allen became my first big-league hero because his 1965 card was the first I found between the waxed paper wrappers. Framed by blue borders, the third baseman was shown crouched in the field at Connie Mack Stadium, holding a brand-new baseball in his right hand. A small, golden trophy in a bottom corner of the card signified his “Rookie of the Year” status the previous season, heralding the remarkable career that would follow.
As I grew older, I became an authority on the starting lineups of National League teams, because each of the 2½-by-3½-inch cards included the player’s offensive statistics on the back. I’d sit in front of the TV with my Phillies cards in one hand and the opposing team’s in the other, trying to manage the game.
It was the early 1970s, and the Phils were terrible, except for pitcher Steve Carlton, a former Cardinal whose first Topps card in a Phillies uniform appeared in 1972, with “TRADED” in bold, black letters across the front. “Lefty” went 27-10, making him responsible for nearly half the games the team won that year. He also became my new hero.
In the mid-’70s, Topps had abandoned artists’ portraits in favor of color photos from games. I started playing third base at the time because I was so impressed by the action photos of Mike Schmidt. He became my new – and last – baseball hero. By 1980, when he led the Phillies to their first world championship, I had outgrown a cherished hobby of my youth.
Today, youngsters who collect baseball cards don’t focus on favorite players or teams as much as monetary value. They use terms like “mint condition,” “grading,” and “price guides.” Some treat cards like museum pieces, keeping them in protective plastic envelopes – if they open them at all. Many never unseal them because it would lessen their “market value.” Some even take out insurance policies for vault-secured collections.
For this I blame the grown-ups – the parents and baseball’s owners and players. They’ve robbed the game of its most valuable resource – the young fan – by assigning a dollar value to anything remotely associated with it. In the process, we’ve lost the innocence of a Little Leaguer anxiously flipping through a pack of baseball cards, hoping to find a hero.